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The other Walter Reed

If this article doesn’t make you very angry, there’s something seriously wrong with you.

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely — a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them — the majority soldiers, with some Marines — have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.

They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Their legions have grown so exponentially — they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 — that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years.

Not all of the quarters are as bleak as Duncan’s, but the despair of Building 18 symbolizes a larger problem in Walter Reed’s treatment of the wounded, according to dozens of soldiers, family members, veterans aid groups, and current and former Walter Reed staff members interviewed by two Washington Post reporters, who spent more than four months visiting the outpatient world without the knowledge or permission of Walter Reed officials. Many agreed to be quoted by name; others said they feared Army retribution if they complained publicly.

I don’t have the words to express how outraged I am at this. But I am going to use some of the words that were expressed by opponents of the recent anti-surge resolution to do a little contrasting and comparing. Click on for more.

What they say:

Former Vietnam POW Sam Johnson, a Republican congressman from the Dallas area, beseeched colleagues Friday to reject the resolution, which affirms support for the troops but disapproves of Bush’s decision to send more to Iraq.

“Our troops and their families want, need and deserve the full support of the country and the Congress,” Johnson said, receiving a standing ovation as lawmakers from both parties saluted his heroism. “Moms and dads watching the news need to know that the Congress will not leave their sons and daughters in harm’s way without support.”

What’s going on:

Disengaged clerks, unqualified platoon sergeants and overworked case managers fumble with simple needs: feeding soldiers’ families who are close to poverty, replacing a uniform ripped off by medics in the desert sand or helping a brain-damaged soldier remember his next appointment.

“We’ve done our duty. We fought the war. We came home wounded. Fine. But whoever the people are back here who are supposed to give us the easy transition should be doing it,” said Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves, 26, an amputee who lived at Walter Reed for 16 months. “We don’t know what to do. The people who are supposed to know don’t have the answers. It’s a nonstop process of stalling.”

What they say:

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, previewed the strategy Republicans would use to fight any funding cuts.

“Does this Congress want to tell our troops in the ground ‘Do more with less even though we in Congress have it within our power to give you aid?’ ” Poe asked.

He dramatically read to the House the letter a besieged William Barrett Travis wrote from the Alamo in 1836 begging for reinforcements.

What’s going on:

Vera Heron spent 15 frustrating months living on post to help care for her son. “It just absolutely took forever to get anything done,” Heron said. “They do the paperwork, they lose the paperwork. Then they have to redo the paperwork. You are talking about guys and girls whose lives are disrupted for the rest of their lives, and they don’t put any priority on it.”

Family members who speak only Spanish have had to rely on Salvadoran housekeepers, a Cuban bus driver, the Panamanian bartender and a Mexican floor cleaner for help. Walter Reed maintains a list of bilingual staffers, but they are rarely called on, according to soldiers and families and Walter Reed staff members.

Evis Morales’s severely wounded son was transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda for surgery shortly after she arrived at Walter Reed. She had checked into her government-paid room on post, but she slept in the lobby of the Bethesda hospital for two weeks because no one told her there is a free shuttle between the two facilities. “They just let me off the bus and said ‘Bye-bye,’ ” recalled Morales, a Puerto Rico resident.

Morales found help after she ran out of money, when she called a hotline number and a Spanish-speaking operator happened to answer.

“If they can have Spanish-speaking recruits to convince my son to go into the Army, why can’t they have Spanish-speaking translators when he’s injured?” Morales asked. “It’s so confusing, so disorienting.”

What they say:

“This sends a terrible message to the troops and to the terrorists,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said.

What’s going on:

The Pentagon has announced plans to close Walter Reed by 2011, but that hasn’t stopped the flow of casualties. Three times a week, school buses painted white and fitted with stretchers and blackened windows stream down Georgia Avenue. Sirens blaring, they deliver soldiers groggy from a pain-relief cocktail at the end of their long trip from Iraq via Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and Andrews Air Force Base.

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, 43, came in on one of those buses in November 2004 and spent several weeks on the fifth floor of Walter Reed’s hospital. His eye and skull were shattered by an AK-47 round. His odyssey in the Other Walter Reed has lasted more than two years, but it began when someone handed him a map of the grounds and told him to find his room across post.

A reconnaissance and land-navigation expert, Shannon was so disoriented that he couldn’t even find north. Holding the map, he stumbled around outside the hospital, sliding against walls and trying to keep himself upright, he said. He asked anyone he found for directions.

Shannon had led the 2nd Infantry Division’s Ghost Recon Platoon until he was felled in a gun battle in Ramadi. He liked the solitary work of a sniper; “Lone Wolf” was his call name. But he did not expect to be left alone by the Army after such serious surgery and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He had appointments during his first two weeks as an outpatient, then nothing.

“I thought, ‘Shouldn’t they contact me?’ ” he said. “I didn’t understand the paperwork. I’d start calling phone numbers, asking if I had appointments. I finally ran across someone who said: ‘I’m your case manager. Where have you been?’

“Well, I’ve been here! Jeez Louise, people, I’m your hospital patient!”

What they say:

“We need to lend our full support to the troops abroad in order to achieve a winning strategy in Iraq,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. “If we give up on our troops, we give the terrorists the momentum they need to further organize and bring the fight to our soil.”

What’s going on:

“Building 18! There is a rodent infestation issue!” bellowed the commander to his troops one morning at formation. “It doesn’t help when you live like a rodent! I can’t believe people live like that! I was appalled by some of your rooms!”

Life in Building 18 is the bleakest homecoming for men and women whose government promised them good care in return for their sacrifices.

One case manager was so disgusted, she bought roach bombs for the rooms. Mouse traps are handed out. It doesn’t help that soldiers there subsist on carry-out food because the hospital cafeteria is such a hike on cold nights. They make do with microwaves and hot plates.

Army officials say they “started an aggressive campaign to deal with the mice infestation” last October and that the problem is now at a “manageable level.” They also say they will “review all outstanding work orders” in the next 30 days.

Soldiers discharged from the psychiatric ward are often assigned to Building 18. Buses and ambulances blare all night. While injured soldiers pull guard duty in the foyer, a broken garage door allows unmonitored entry from the rear. Struggling with schizophrenia, PTSD, paranoid delusional disorder and traumatic brain injury, soldiers feel especially vulnerable in that setting, just outside the post gates, on a street where drug dealers work the corner at night.

“I’ve been close to mortars. I’ve held my own pretty good,” said Spec. George Romero, 25, who came back from Iraq with a psychological disorder. “But here . . . I think it has affected my ability to get over it . . . dealing with potential threats every day.”

After Spec. Jeremy Duncan, 30, got out of the hospital and was assigned to Building 18, he had to navigate across the traffic of Georgia Avenue for appointments. Even after knee surgery, he had to limp back and forth on crutches and in pain. Over time, black mold invaded his room.

But Duncan would rather suffer with the mold than move to another room and share his convalescence in tight quarters with a wounded stranger. “I have mold on the walls, a hole in the shower ceiling, but . . . I don’t want someone waking me up coming in.”

Wilson, the clinical social worker at Walter Reed, was part of a staff team that recognized Building 18’s toll on the wounded. He mapped out a plan and, in September, was given a $30,000 grant from the Commander’s Initiative Account for improvements. He ordered some equipment, including a pool table and air hockey table, which have not yet arrived. A Psychiatry Department functionary held up the rest of the money because she feared that buying a lot of recreational equipment close to Christmas would trigger an audit, Wilson said.

In January, Wilson was told that the funds were no longer available and that he would have to submit a new request. “It’s absurd,” he said. “Seven months of work down the drain. I have nothing to show for this project. It’s a great example of what we’re up against.”

A pool table and two flat-screen TVs were eventually donated from elsewhere.

But Wilson had had enough. Three weeks ago he turned in his resignation. “It’s too difficult to get anything done with this broken-down bureaucracy,” he said.

We sure wouldn’t want to send the wrong message to anybody, now, would we?

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  1. Denise Soles says:

    This story along with all VA issued stories just makes me so angry. After losing my husband, A Vietnam Era Veteran over 6 yrs ago,due to the ”inappropriate care and lack of follow up” from the VA, I have continued to speak out to Government officials, writing letters, and in many of these letters, including one to Secretary of VA, Jim Nicholson, asking them to go to VA hospitals, unannounced, no photo ops, and walk the floors, see how they Veterans are cared for, how they are fed, how the buildings themselves are taken care of, and not one time have I gotten a response to one of them, nor have I seen one of them doing this. So, no one can convince me that the officials were not aware these conditions were going on, When Pres Bush goes to Walter Reed, obviously it is only for photo ops, not for the care and concern of our troops, or he would of seen these conditions. This will be an issue for a short time, and then it will be brushed under the carpet, and our Veterans will go right back to the care they are receiving, until, someone else hears of a story and tells it…sad, no one cares until it is in the media. Then our government comes out with concern…I am still waiting on responses from Sen. Clinton, Committee of Veterans Affairs, and Nicholson, but, not holding my breath. God Bless our Veterans, and their families, they deserve the best, and all our respect.

  2. ann says:

    Having been a patient at Walter Reed, I find the recent reports a bit ironic. In early 2005 I was an outpatient housed there for 6 long months, via Iraq. The system was broke beyond repair back then. I find it almost amusing that all of a sudden it’s ‘news’. Nothing ‘new’ about it at all.

    Also they relieved the wrong general of command. The poor guy had inheritted a mess, and had only been there for 6 months. Due to political pressures (if I understand this right) the current general is being relieved, and replaced by the previous general. Why would they put the man who was in charge of the broken system for years, and failed to fix it, back in charge?

    Yes the housing sucked (but so does most of army housing), and the paperwork/process sucked (but so does ANY government paperwork/process); but I still chose Walter Reed. I was offered TriCare (military insurance), and a ticket home. But I chose to stay. Why? Because I would rather deal with Walter Reed anyday, than deal with an HMO based insurance company. I got great medical care at Walter Reed.